Series Preview: Brewers @ Cubs | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Entering Wrigley Field, the Brewers may have just completed one of their most important stretches of play for the season. At the 40 game mark, the Brewers boasted a 25-15 overall record, but they more recently stumbled through a rough stretch of injuries and scattered ineffectiveness from the rotation, bullpen, and offense. Basically, the Brewers played without Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez in a sequence of disabled list moves, and the previously lights-out bullpen hit their first stumbling blocks. When the starting pitchers stopped with the excellent 2-and-3 runs allowed starts, it was tougher for the Brewers to win as many games. Still, when the dust settled, games 31-to-40 saw the Brewers go 4-6, which included the last two losses at Cincinnati and the bulk of their recent, scrappy homestand.

One of the keys thus far for the Brewers is their ability to win close games. Even when things aren’t going perfectly according to plan, the Brewers are still remaining close in their ballgames (this is probably what makes some of their losses feel more frustrating than your typical ballgame, lately). Since our Milwaukee Nine returned home from their exceptional first roadtrip, they scored 117 runs and allowed 123 runs over 32 games. Instead of going 16-16, 15-17, or even 14-18 (or worse, still!), the Brewers managed a 19-13 mark over that rocky stretch of play.

Ten Game Sets Run Differential W-L
March 31-April 11 50 RS / 26 RA 8-2
April 12-April 21 35 RS / 38 RA 7-3
April 22-May 2 34 RS / 37 RA 6-4
May 3-May 14 40 RS / 43 RA 4-6
May 15 4 RS / 3 RA 1-0

Early on, the exceptional bullpen and solid starting pitching performances helped the team win close games, and the poor run differential really only reflects some of the club’s blowouts (such as the Rob Wooten and Wei-Chung Wang affair in Pittsburgh). More recently, even as things seemed tough over the last 11 games, this is the first extended series of games since the roadtrip where the Brewers matched a 4.00 RS/G average. Given that their current league / park environment is fluctuating somewhere between 4.07 and 4.12 RS / G, 44 runs over 11 games is not bad. Now, perhaps Brewers fans and analysts can turn around and thank the ragamuffin offense for scoring some runs while the pitchers endure some of their rough patches. This should be especially easy to do after yesterday’s exceptional walk-off win.

Think of it this way: every 117 RS / 123 RA stretch that the Brewers turn into a winning record will (1) hold the team steady for their next dominant streak, (2) diminish the damage of a true losing streak, or (3) both. One can hum-and-haw that the Brewers are coming back to earth, but that’s not quite right; they’re limiting the damage and turning close games into wins.

Even if the theme throughout the season is the Brewers’ luck, that’s not a bad sign. Really, the entire season is nothing more than a string of circumstances and situations that the Brewers will encounter. Even if the Brewers continue to win close games and outplay their run differential, the wins still count. They can’t all be crisp victories. The biggest question is whether the Brewers can bring some of their current offensive magic and timing on the road for what will promise to be one of their longest, toughest road trips of the season. Opening against the “under-performing” Cubs, staying for four games against the contending Braves, and closing the trip against the unexpected success of the Marlins, the Brewers can rummage through a series of existential identities and find the best one for their season. We’d certainly rather have an unexpected success than an underperforming Brewers squad, and one only need to question whether that unexpected success will eventually turn into contending bliss.

Cubs (39 G): 156 RS / 163 RA
Brewers (41 G): 163 RS / 149 RA

The Cubs have one of the most misleading run differentials in the National League. While one might expect the Cubs to have a record near .500 due to their runs scored and runs allowed, their actual distribution of runs scored does not bear those expectations. First, in the last 11 games, the Cubs are 2-9. However, both of their victories were high-scoring blowouts, giving the Cubs a 29 RS / 10 RA advantage in those victories. In the other nine games, the Cubs are 19 RS / 40 RA, including three one run losses. Overall, the Cubs have scored 35% of their runs in victories with margins of more than five runs; they are 5-0 and 55 RS / 19 RA in those games. Otherwise, the Cubs are 8-26 while going 101 RS / 144 RA.

Last Series:
Cubs: Series Loss @ St. Louis (incomplete series)
Brewers: Series Victory vs. Pirates

Previous Performances:
2013 Brewers: 74-88 (640 RS / 687 RA)
2013 Cubs: 66-96 (602 RS / 689 R)

2011-2013 Brewers: 253-233 (2137 RS / 2058 RA)
2011-2013 Cubs: 198-288 (1869 RS / 2204 RA)

Kyle Lohse (2-0, 31.7 IP, 13 R (23 K / 5 BB / 3 HR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Jeff Samardzija (0-2, 35 IP, 9 R (30 K / 11 BB / 1 HR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Kyle Lohse pitched efficiently against the Yankees at Miller Park, using only 85 pitches to complete six innings of work. It was his second consecutive start shy of 100 pitches. With those offerings, Lohse leaned heavily on his change up, shelving his favorite breaking balls (or, relatively so, anyway). This grouping completely changed from his previous start, when his slider was his favorite pitch of any of his selections. One can depend on Lohse to change his approach as needed, and pitch to his competition. In this case, his first Wrigley outing of the season could be a solid time to favor his sinker, especially if Lakeview’s particularly cool weather continues.

Poor winless Samardzija. The Cubs have scored 15 runs in Jeff Samardzija’s starts this year. The bullpen has allowed 12 runs during his starts. He’s allowed 12 runs, by the way, in 56 innings. Even given this terrible balance of support (compared to Samardzija’s actual performance), one might reasonably expect the Cubs to win two of his starts. Instead, they are 1-7 in his games (this includes losses in a 9 IP, one run effort, and losses in four of five extended, 7.0+ IP quality starts). Watch Samardzija give up five runs in five innings and earn his first win of the season when the Cubs score 10. I only hope this doesn’t happen against the Brewers; but still, it’s hard not to feel bad for such a solid effort receiving so little support.

Looking back to the previous preview, Lohse’s support from the Brewers completely contrasts that of the Cubs during Samardzija’s starts. On support alone, Lohse’s Brewers have the apparent advantage over Samardzija’s Cubs, for the Brewers offense scored 39 runs during Lohse’s starts, while the bullpen allowed seven runs. It will be interesting to see how both teams perform, given this track record. Focusing too much on these teams’ support suggests that the actual effort of the starters does not matter. In a head-to-head meeting, the overall quality of both Lohse and Samardzija should frame the start as much as their support from their teammates.

Matt Garza (2-1, 26 IP, 19 R (22 K / 144 BB / 1 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Edwin Jackson (2-2, 31.3 IP, 13 R (24 K / 8 BB / 2 HR), 3 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Together, Garza and Jackson can claim $100 million worth of contracts, but one could use Jackson’s career performance and 2013 deal as an argument in favor of the price the Brewers paid for Garza. While Garza’s issue has been his injuries, at his best he has a ceiling that is arguably higher than that of Jackson. As an innings eater and a generally good starter, Jackson earned his $52 million contract, so I don’t want to suggest that Jackson’s deal was of bad value for the Cubs when he signed it. Not only does Garza have a chance to beat his old rotation-mate, but he can showcase his value in a battle of similar contracts.

By the way, did anyone else notice that Matt Garza’s fastball velocity shifted while he settled down for the second consecutive start? Once again, against the Yankees, Garza pumped hard fastballs into the zone, throwing 9 of 23 first inning fastballs at 93 or higher (by my count). His lowest fastballs were at 91, and he threw 92 MPH fastballs most frequently. After the Yankees cuffed him around, he kept the rate of 92 MPH fastballs at a similar rate, but threw half as many fastballs above 93. Instead, Garza dipped into the upper 80s twice and threw 12 90-91 MPH fastballs during his recovery.

Inning Fastballs <90 MPH 90 MPH 91 MPH 92 MPH 93 MPH 94 MPH
First 23 3 11 7 2
2-5 41 2 5 7 19 6 2

That Garza consistently threw around 92 MPH leads me to believe that he’s not injured or experiencing arm discomfort, but that the issue may be mechanical. It will be worth watching Garza’s form to see if he continues his pace of throwing more effectively at slower velocities. Perhaps Ron Roenicke should encourage Garza to throw 20 fastballs as hard as possible to complete his warm up, in order to get those out of his system before he takes the mound. Garza’s effective recoveries are good arguments that velocity does not always give a pitcher an advantage; lately, Garza seems to perform better when he’s throwing slower. Perhaps Garza should slow down his fastballs from the get go.

Entering Chicago, Jackson had not pitched two consecutive below average seasons since his breakout season for the 2008 Devil Rays. After his rough first season in Chicago, Jackson is on pace to have another below average year on the North Side. However, one can question the source of Jackson’s troubles; the righty’s strike out rate declined slightly, but his home run and walk rates also declined.

Jackson IP K% BB% HR% H/9 BF ERA+
2008-2012 996 18.1 8.1 2.6 9.1 4235 105
2013-present 222.7 17.7 8.0 1.8 9.9 980 81

Jackson’s line drive rate has soared in Chicago, which has arguably impacted his ability to strand runners and prevent hits. Even if Jackson is not beating himself with walks and home runs, he is getting hit at a rate that the porous Cubs defense cannot contain.

[EDITED]Marco Estrada is the starter for the final game, not Peralta. Sorry for the mistake!
Wily Peralta (2-2, 34.3 IP, 9 R (26 K / 5 BB / 3 HR), 5 quality starts in last 5 GS) @ Travis Wood (3-2, 29.7 IP, 22 R (25 K / 11 BB / 3 HR), 2 quality starts in last 5 GS)

Tracking pitching advantages and mismatches at this point in the season is very difficult. First and foremost, each pitcher does not necessarily have enough starts to truly judge their effort (for the sake of comparison with other pitchers). One or two bad starts right now can really soil a pitcher’s overall record after only eight starts. However, pitchers can exhibit enough new traits or trends to note significant differences between their full 2013 and early 2014 performances. Yovani Gallardo’s sinker is a good example of this; Wily Peralta is exhibiting a true turnaround, compared to his 2013 campaign. This makes it difficult to judge his ability to face off against Travis Wood, who was excellent last year but struggling in early 2014. What is particularly difficult about Peralta’s turnaround is that he is maintaining modest strikeout and home run development:

Peralta IP R K% BB% HR% BF
2012 29 8 20.4 9.7 0.0 113
2013 through June 16 80 63 12.1 8.6 2.4 373
2013 June 21 and after 103.3 IP 44 19.6 9.6 2.3 429
2014 thus far 52.7 17 18.1 4.6 2.7 216

If one simply analyzed and projected Peralta’s 2013 improvement and said, “yes, this is the pitcher Peralta is going to be in 2014,” that estimate would already be five runs off of Peralta’s actual performance; he is already five runs ahead of those improvement projections. Moreover, he’s building his improvement without absurd strike out or home run improvements; in fact, both his K/PA and HR/PA are worse in 2014 than during his late season improvement. Peralta is working around his hits allowed in some of his strong starts, and he’s also not beating himself with the walk. That Peralta is improving by hammering opposing batters with his sinker and slider is best of all — and it’s getting to the point where I’m not inclined to use the 2013 performances to say Wood and the Cubs have the advantage in this start.

Travis Wood is all or nothing with his walks in 2014. While walking 15 of 215 batters faced is not bad, the southpaw 14 of those walks to four starts, including his outing in Milwaukee (he walked three at Miller Park). Not surprisingly, 19 of his 29 runs allowed also crossed the plate during those four outings. This gives the false impression that Wood is throwing better than his actual results; although his overall peripheral performance is quite good, if one piles up walks in any start, one might expect trouble. Although Wood throws his fastballs more than 80% of the time in 2014, he threw his cutter, primary, and secondary fastballs 10% more frequently against the Brewers. In fact, Wood allegedly only threw 12 off-speed pitches or breaking balls in Milwaukee.

BaseballProspectus. Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC., 1996-2014.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
Brewers Radio Network. WTMJ 620. WTMJ / Journal Broadcasting Gorup, 2014.
MLB Advanced Media, LP. 2014.
TexasLeaguers. Trip Somers, 2009-2014.

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